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Play nice with rice

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Onigiri is one of my favourite rice dishes and I like making it too. I have a little plastic rice ball "shaper", which of course, is one of those things that isn't necessary but one has to have anyway. I smoked a salmon fillet recently for a recipe in the "Don't Call Me Chef" column (see sidebar) that will be out this Monday (there'll also be a blog post on it and instructions for smoked tofu) and have used some of the fish for these salmon onigiri. Quite often, the salmon is flaked and tossed through the rice before shaping but that feels like baby food to me and I prefer the fish on top. And because of that I still season the rice with the sushi vinegar, although I just mix it through without fanning the rice as the Japanese would do.

When I have onigiri for lunch on a workday (I'm still on holiday now), I usually make it part of a bento box and use a partitioned container which includes fruit and perhaps a little sweet thing. I can get quite fancy with my packed lunches, you know. After all, one needs something to look forward when one has to drag oneself to a cold, uninspiring office space.

I cook one cup of raw rice, and that's too much for me to eat in one sitting, but since I use a rice cooker, it's just more efficient with that amount (the rice can also be cooked on the stove, of course). If each ball is a tablespoon of rice, I can probably get around 15 servings.

After the rice is cooked, I leave it covered in the pot for about 10 minutes. In the meantime, I heat up about 2 tablespoons of rice vinegar and dissolve 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1.5 teaspoons of white sugar in it, then mix the vinegar through the warm rice.

I make balls using my plastic contraption, but it can be done by compressing the rice with the hands (wet them first so the rice doesn't stick). Oh, I also cut nori into strips (I simply cut along the perforated lines in the seaweed sheets) and wrap those around the balls, then place the salmon on top. Serve with Japanese soy sauce and wasabi.

A fool for yoghurt

Sunday, December 27, 2009

I've been straining yoghurt I get from the shops. This removes the liquid, leaving a thick curd with bite. It adds volume and flavour to things like dips and I eat it on its own as well. It seems more satisfying in a way.

All I do is pour the yoghurt into the middle of a piece of muslin cloth, place that inside a sieve and leave to drain into a bowl. When the yoghurt can be folded back on itself (to do this, lift one side of the muslin slightly), scoop it out of the muslin and place in a clean container. For every 150ml tub, you may lose about a quarter but you can use that liquid - the whey - in curries or sauces.

This afternoon, I felt like having a pudding and since I had some passion fruit, I thought of making a fool. For the uninitiated, a fool is a classic English dessert of crushed fruit (traditionally gooseberries) folded into whipped cream or beaten egg white. But since strained yoghurt is a good substitute, I didn't have to bother with any whisking. 

Passion fruit fool
Serves 1

Strained yoghurt from a 150ml tub pot
1/2 teaspoon icing sugar
2 teaspoons pina colada mix or orange liqueur (optional)
1 ripe passion fruit

Combine yoghurt, sugar and mix or liqueur. Cut the passion fruit in half and scoop out the pulp and seeds. Fold half into the yoghurt mixture, and spoon into a glass. Top with the rest of the passion fruit and enjoy.

Oh Martha, why hast thou forsaken me?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

I've had a candy thermometer (Taylor brand) for a year now but have never used it because I hadn't figured out how to clip it to the side of the pot. I imagined that one would need a really high pot since the clip of the thermometer was right at the top of the instrument when I took it out of the package. I didn't realise until just now (1.58pm Malaysian time on Dec 23, 2009) that the clip could slide up and down! Silly me.

Now, I got Candy Making for Dummies around the same time as the thermometer because I had visions of myself as this candy lady covered in powdered sugar and happily making all manner of confectionery to feed the sweet tooths (teeth?) of the world. Then the December 2008 issue of Martha Stewart Living came out with recipes for old-time candies and so I got that too, hoping to be like the supreme home-style authority after whom I have named my alter ego. But still, nothing happened.
Another excuse I had was I didn't have the right pan. Until recently, the only saucepan I had that was large enough for the job was one with a black interior, and when I melted sugar before, I could never gauge the colour of the syrup because of that. But now I have a new stainless steel saucepan, and so coupled with my new-found knowledge of the tricky clip, I thought it was about time I actually made some candy. Just in time for Christmas too.

But first, I had to test the thermometer for accuracy. I put some freshly boiled water from the kettle into a jug, put in the gadget and waited for it to register 100 degrees Celsius. The mercury never rose above 80! (More on this after the jump.)

The instructions on the packaging say to make adjustments after testing the thermometer, but 20 degrees off was way too much and there was little point in using it. Fortunately, fudge is fairly forgiving since the sugar isn't heated to a very high temperature, as for hard sweets and toffees where the exact temperature is crucial. I would go by timing, colour and texture, and use the cold water test.

I decided to try Martha Stewart's penuche (pronounced per-noo-chee) fudge only because I already had almost all the ingredients at home (her recipe, also available on her website, includes walnuts; I didn't have any so left them out). And how could anyone go wrong with Martha, right?

Hrmmph... The ingredients looked good together in the pot but they started to fight each other once the mixture boiled and I turned down the heat to allow the mixture to simmer.

I decided to clip on the thermometer anyway for... no good reason, really. Just one of those things the desperately hopeful do.

I had read elsewhere that once sugar has boiled, it shouldn't be stirred. In this recipe, you're asked to stir frequently as the mixture simmers. The butter had started to curdle but after stirring vigorously, it smoothed out.

At its highest, the thermometer only registered 90 degrees. I figured since it was 20 degrees off, that would make the actual temperature 110 degrees, close enough to the soft-ball stage of 115 required in the recipe. So I tried the cold-water test but all I got - and I tried this three times over 10 minutes - was an oily film on top of the water.
Oh well, this could still work, so I poured out the mixture which looked like it had separated, and started to whisk it. Martha says to beat two to four minutes, but it didn't thicken and still looked like a mess. So I went on for another 15 minutes until the mixture started to cool down and the beaters left a ribbon in the mixture. Still, it would not thicken beyond that. It remained fluid and I could actually pour it out when it should have been firm enough to spread into the pan and to smooth the top.

It went into the fridge, and then into the freezer because it just wouldn't firm up. But as you can see from the picture (which I've cropped really close so that it doesn't look as gross to you as the real goo does to me), it remained soft even after a night in cold storage. And the taste? Grainy (the consequence of overstirring, I'm told), too sweet, and - this will sound odd - too buttery (there's 150g of butter in this). Chalk this down as an "interesting" failure.

On a happier note, I tested the thermometer again, this time in water boiling on the stove, and the reading is slightly more dependable - it's only 5 degrees off.

Next time, marshmallows.

Penuche Fudge on Foodista

Think of us for your next event

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The culinary version of the Italian flag
The picture shows the first course Veggie Chick and I sent out at our first catering gig last night. It's three kinds of dips - (from left) marinated tomato, chickpea and yoghurt, and green pea with cheese. Since the culinary theme was Italian food, VC came up with the brilliant idea of copying the colours of Il Tricolore. The crisps as the top of the picture aren't Italian though - we briefly toasted Iranian flat bread and then broke them into shards. In food, we can take liberties as long as it tastes good, don't you agree?

In all the excitement, I forgot to photograph the rest of the food before sending it out (but my partner did, so go to her blog to see what we made), which irks me because I just figured out how to change the camera settings to take indoor shots!

After the dips came spaghetti and chicken meatballs in a tomato sauce, followed by a number of appetizers (this was a sort of a cocktail party, by the way, but we decided to include a main course). Here's what we served:
  • Roasted sweet onion and yellow pepper crostini;
  • Marinated red pepper crostini;
  • Tuna puffs (in choux pastry); and
  • Falafel (again, not very Italian, but those chickpea balls went down well with the guests).
To end the meal, there were mocha truffles, similar to the kind I wrote about some time ago, only this time, instead of using leftover store-bought cake, this was homemade using an easy brownie recipe with a little coffee extract added and it was much cheaper too - we were, after all, working on a tight budget. (You know, Veggie Chick's blog is called NoDessert, but I saw her sneaking one of these little bites at the end of the night!)

She and I wanted to start a small catering venture after reading about pop-up restaurants and because we love to cook. It is an interesting concept and for much less than a visit to a real eatery, one can get a good meal even if it's not by a Michelin-starred chef, and homemade at that.

I came home after the party dead tired, but the whole experience was enjoyable and we learned a thing or two about organisation - the food preparation is probably the easiest part of the whole venture. All the way home, I was thinking of all the food themes we could do. A host of appetizers are great, but it would also be interesting to make a three course meal as well. Hopefully, we get more clients, because - and I think I speak for Veggie Chick as well - we're hooked!

Come in, sit down, eat!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

It's been 10 years since I had a catering gig. It was for a student film my friend was making in London. I was on the job for a week and cooked for about 30 people in this tiny kitchen that - I kid you not - was just wide enough for me to stretch our out my arms in. It was a good, if new experience, one that I had thought of trying again since then but never got round to doing.

In about 36 hours, I'll be doing that. While I did the cooking alone that first time, I'm teaming up with Veggie Chick for the upcoming EXTRAVAGANZA! (Well, it's actually a quiet affair but it's kind of a big deal for us and I can't say EXTRAVAGANZA! without capitalising the word and giving it an exclamation mark.) And while cooking for people acting and working on a set simply required making a lot of edible food to nourish and sustain them through the day, this gig is for a dozen people in a cosier, less energy-packed situation and with more poncey food.
The menu is Italian(ish), with one entree and a lot of bite-sized morsels in between. Being the inaugural attempt in our partnership, the Chick and I have been really excited and might have been a little too enthusiastic about the menu although we're working on a tiny budget. But we've ironed things out and have already started preparing the food. More on the night - hopefully with all the thrills and none of the spills - when it's over. Wish us luck!

Tapping peanuts for a treat

Friday, December 18, 2009

My tap dance instructor threw his year-end party today. It was a potluck which started at around 3pm with tap videos and tea and led on to dinner. I was assigned a teatime snack and after thorough discussions with my classmates (we take our food assignments seriously; something that we should do with our tap drills as well, but... you know...), one of them, Chak, suggested peanut butter brownies.He was supposed to make Soda Gembira (Malay for Happy Soda) - a red syrup drink (Malaysians know it as Air Bandung) with ice cream soda, Kahlua, Malibu and another liqueur which I forget now - as the welcome drink, but he couldn't make it to the party at the last minute so we didn't get quite as happy as we could have been. Sigh...

The brownie was supposed to come out stripier but I guess I zagged when I should have zigged (see recipe). Don't worry, that won't stop anyone from eating it.

I have provided a recipe for the base of this brownie, but you can use any plain brownie recipe (I really shouldn't say "plain" because a brownie is never plain) for it. Use a box mix if you want - some of them are really good - though with this recipe, the only extra effort you need to make is sifting the dry ingredients together.

For the recipe...

Makes a 25cm square pan

¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup caster sugar
2 medium eggs*
⅓ cup vegetable oil
½ cup unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
⅓ cup buttermilk
¾ cup peanuts, toasted and coarsely chopped (optional)

Peanut Butter Swirl
1 cup creamy peanut butter
⅓ cup caster sugar
4 tablespoons vegetable oil (or melted butter)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 medium egg*
  • Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease and line a 25cm square baking pan with baking paper. In a medium bowl, combine all the ingredients for the peanut butter swirl, mix well, then set aside. Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and cocoa powder together.
  • In a large bowl, beat the sugar, eggs and oil together until light (I use a manual whisk but feel free to use a power tool). Stir in the vanilla extract until blended. Stir in the flour mixture and buttermilk just until combined. Stir in the nuts if using.
  • Turn ⅔ of the batter into prepared pan and smooth the top. Spoon dollops of peanut butter mixture on this layer. Drop spoonfuls of the remaining brownie batter in between. Do not smooth out. Using the tip of a table knife, make a zigzag through the layers to create a marbled effect. Bake in preheated oven until the centre of the brownie appears set and the sides just start to pull away from the pan, about 28 to 30 minutes.
  • Cool brownies in the pan on a rack, then refrigerate until firm before cutting into squares.
* I use medium eggs for ethical reasons. In this recipe, the smaller size doesn't effect the brownies. In fact, I find they add to the chewiness.


Coffee in styrofoam is against my religion

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The title of this post is attributed to Betsy Canas Garmon, who writes at (That there's a "thyme" in her site name is purely coincidental. We're not related.)

Above is a picture of the mug my morning coffee is made in. It holds 400ml - 14oz for those of you who don't use the metric system. It's quite a big mug but that's all the coffee I usually have in one day. (Despite being in the press, I don't have copious amounts of joe at work like some of the other journalists.)

Here's how I make mine: 1 heaped teaspoon of Indocafe instant coffee - no contemptuous snorts from you connoisseurs, now - and the same amount of demerara sugar topped with just-boiled water to about an inch from the brim of the mug, which is then filled with full-cream milk. Very simple, but I can't do without it first thing in the morning.

On weekends, I might make a latte using this simple method with brewed coffee. I've never been able to form that nice pattern on top of the foam though; mine always comes out wonky, if it works at all. Never mind. I keep a bottle of Kahlua on the top shelf of my kitchen cabinet and that saves the day!

I peel for you

Monday, December 14, 2009

Oranges and lemons, so full of pennies
All the school girls are so many...

That's how I used to sing the nursery rhyme when I was a child, not knowing the actual words - citrus fruit stuffed with money? Ooh gimme! And with one sen coins out of circulation, 10 or 20 sen would be nice. (The first line is actually, "Oranges and lemons, SOLD FOR A PENNY". Yeah, that's more believable.)

I just looked up the nursery rhyme, and some of the words have been changed - political correctness and all that, I suppose. The last few lines are now: "The grass is green and the rose is red/ Remember me when you are sad." Originally, it ended, "Remember me WHEN I AM DEAD." Sad? Red?... er, doesn't rhyme.

Now, if you have a bag of Valencia oranges, like I did recently, and they're not very nice to eat ­­– the ones I bought weren't very sweet ­­– you might want to turn them into...

Chunky cupful
I chose the firmer, thicker-skinned ones for the jam. The recipes I have in my cookbooks are a bit complicated but I found a simple recipe online and have tweaked it slightly. The original one is smooth because the orange skin is zested and the flesh pulverised in the food processor. I decided to add a little extra peel to give it a bit more body and texture.

One thing to remember is to taste the fruit before making the marmalade. The amount of sugar you use is approximately ½ cup to every orange but that depends on how sweet the fruit is.

Makes 1 cup

2 medium oranges (the original recipe calls for Navel; I used Valencia)
1 cup sugar (approximate; depending on sweetness of fruit)
4 tbsp water
  • Wash the orange well. Cut off the ends. Zest 1 orange; peel off the skin (without the white part) from the other one and dice quite fine. If you want the smooth marmalade, zest both oranges.
  • Cut off the skin from both oranges. Cut the flesh into quarters and remove any large seeds (some seeds are necessary as they provide the pectin that helps the marmalade gel). Place the flesh into a food processor and blend to a relatively fine pulp.
  • In a medium saucepan, combine zest, dice, orange pulp, sugar and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 10-15 minutes until mixture becomes thick and sticks to your spoon. Pour into small jar or covered container. Keep refrigerated. 

Mash and roll

Friday, December 11, 2009

Cake truffles
I resolved to bake more often until the new year, but I didn't have to do that with these confections. If these truffles had a subtitle, it would be Dessert Part II since their prequel was a chocolate cream cake - well, that's as far back in this cake's life as I can go because it's from a bakery chain and I don't know what kind of synthetic stuff goes into their cake mix.

These truffles are made from the leftover cake plus the last few pieces of pecan shortbread I had made a week ago. ("Real" chocolate truffles are made from chocolate ganache, a combination of chocolate and cream.) All it takes to make them is to crumble the cake and shortbread (can be done with forks, fingers or in a food processor), refrigerate the mixture for a bit, roll into balls and then coat them with either cocoa powder or dessicated coconut. Gussy them up by placing each one in a nice mini paper cup. Easy, right?

Here are some recipes for cake truffles from
group recipes
and here's an interesting one from the popular site, The Kitchn.

As the binding agent - the thing that holds the crumbs together - some recipes use frosting, others use cream cheese. My cake already came with the cream between the layers so I didn't have to add anything else.

The most important thing to remember is to ensure that the texture of the cake crumbs isn't too wet or dry. Minced nuts or coconut add bulk, firmness and taste, or add more of the binding agent to moisten the truffles up. Whatever it is, you need to get your hands into the mix and feel it to know what to do to get the right texture. Then, even store-bought cake won't leave a bad taste in the mouth the second time around.

Dirty job? Bring it on!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

I have no problem getting my hands dirty (though nothing like Mike Rowe's dirty jobs!). Prawns to shell and devein? No worries. Fish to scale? Sure. A whole chicken to cut up? Em, okay, but only if it's free-range because unlike industrial chicken, it doesn't smell and it's not slimy.

Not that all things slimy gross me out. In fact, I find cleaning and skinning squid - already, some people are repelled, but call it calamari and they start licking their lips - quite relaxing. There's something about detaching the head, feeling for and removing the hard beak from the centre of the tentacles, getting rid of the innards and cartilage, and peeling off the mottled red skin that makes cooking and eating the squid later so much more satisfying. Unfortunately, I almost always puncture the ink pouch, and my sink is black after I clean squid, but that's what soap and water are for.

Speaking of ink, Alan Davidson's magisterial The Penguin Companion to Food states that squid is found in all oceans and seas, except the Black Sea. Ironic, isn't it? Here's a little bit of what he writes:
"All squid are remarkable in one aspect. The processes of natural selection have operated on them in a manner which suggests that fitness for being stuffed by cooks in kitchens was a criterion for their survival... Alternatively, the body can be sliced across to form rings, which... can be deep-fried..."
Or simply grilled and mixed with some raw greens like this:

I saw a picture in Donna Hay (Issue 13: Summer) for barbecued lemon and mint squid salad and liked it (of course I would; the magazine has fantastic pictures!) but I changed the recipe slightly, substituting 1 clove of garlic (crushed) with Szechuan peppercorns in the marinade, and using lime juice instead of lemon. Donna Hay had styled its plate with an equal amount of squid and leaves, but as you can see from my picture, I like my greens.

For the recipe...

Serves 2

4 large squid hoods (about 250g)
2 cups baby spinach leaves
1/2 cup mint leaves

Marinade (combined)
1/2 tsp Szechuan peppercorns, toasted and ground
2 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp oil (olive, vegetable, sunflower)
  • Make a cut down one side of each squid hood to open out flat. Lightly score hoods using diagonal cuts (take care not to cut all the way through the flesh). Place squid in a non-metallic bowl and pour over half the marinade (reserve the remaining half). Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  • Heat a grill pan and cook squid for one minute on each side or until cooked through. Slice into bite-sized pieces and toss with spinach and mint. Spoon over remaining marinade.

Bet this butter's better

Monday, December 7, 2009

For this month's Don't Call Me Chef newspaper column, we wrote about our favourite things. Mine is eating a slab of rustic bread ­­– homemade if possible ­­– slathered with butter. What I like is homemade butter, and since I found out how easy it is to make, this is the only kind I will spread on my toast.

I make only a small amount, about a week's worth, since homemade butter doesn't keep for long. But making it is an enjoyable process so I do this about once a week. It's not the cheapest butter around, but there are some things in life I don't mind spending a little extra money or time on.

Because of space constraints in the newspaper, I've posted step-by-step instructions here with pictures.

Double cream, removed from the fridge and allowed to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes 

Large mason jar

  • Pour cream into the jar to come a third of the way up the sides. Screw on the lid tightly and shake the jar up and down so the cream sloshes around. Do not stop shaking until the butter starts to form. During the process, you can tell which stage you are at by the sound.

  • First there will be a lot of sloshing. Then it will suddenly stop. This is when whipped cream has formed. For the small amount of cream that I used here, it took only about 7 minutes to turn to whipped cream.

  • Keep shaking and the cream will start to separate into curds that form into a big lump -- this is the butter. It will sit in a thin liquid ­­– the buttermilk. This may take 10 minutes, or it may take 30 mins. If you have small children around, let them earn their keep and get them to take turns shaking the jar. Pour the buttermilk into a clean container and reserve for another use. It is delicious and you can use it in all sorts of dishes. (Here's a link to recipes using buttermilk.)

  • Put the butter into a clean bowl and cover with cold water. Swirl it around, then pour away the liquid. Continue rinsing the butter until the water runs clear. This shouldn't take very long ­­– 5 minutes or so.

  • Place butter on a chopping board and press with a rubber spatula to remove all the buttermilk ­­– it's the milky white droplets in the picture. Any remaining buttermilk will spoil the butter.

  • Transfer butter to a clean container; press out air bubbles with a spatula. Keep covered in the refrigerator. The unsalted butter and buttermilk will keep for about a week.
  • If desired, knead sea salt (to taste) into the butter. This will help preserve the butter. But for this small amount, there's really no need to. Instead of salting the butter, spread it on bread, then sprinkle some sea salt over it for taste and that pleasant crunch. 

Too afraid of deep-frying

Friday, December 4, 2009

I am... I am terrified of deep-frying. I've had a lot of accidents with boiling oil but the worst one happened a few months ago when I was making churros for the chilli challenge in the Don't Call Me Chef column. One of the Mexican doughnuts exploded, shooting both ends out of the pot in opposite directions and spattering hot oil onto the right side of my face (I quickly turned my face to the left at the sound of the explosion but still caught the impact), neck and part of my chest (I have a photograph and contemplated posting it here but I think it may be inappropriate in a food blog, even if it has everything to do with cooking. Anyway, only faint scars remain on my face, but the invisible ones that I bear are more permanent).

 Oven-fried chicken and stuffed potatoes

So I avoid this cooking method for my safety but there's something to be said about the flavour and texture you get from deep-frying. However, you can get almost the same effect in the oven. For those who think oil is bad (not me), this chicken recipe will suit you since the only fat in it is in the chicken skin (and even that can be removed... but let's live a little, yes?) 

I have to admit I was inspired to make this after watching Nigella Lawson (she does get on my nerves sometimes -- no one is THAT goddess-y in the kitchen!) prepare her Ritzy Chicken Nuggets and Blood and Guts Potatoes on one of her cooking shows. However, I left out the tomato ketchup in and on the potatoes -- because I am not a child and don't need "blood" to tempt me to eat -- and added za'atar to the chicken marinade. I also used two free-range chicken legs (cut into three) with skin on and bones left in instead of breast fillets.

You can get the za'atar spice blend from Middle Eastern grocers but I make my own (the amounts are mostly to taste, but it's about a large pinch of each spice):

Dried thyme
Toasted cumin seeds
Toasted sesame seeds

Here's are two more recipes, but with slightly different ingredients.

Little pearls, big taste

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Pearls of infinite flavour
I forget now where I first read about Israeli couscous, but ever since then, I've wanted to get some. I didn't make a serious effort to go looking for it, but out of the blue, I see it on the shelves at my local neighbourhood grocery store! Compared to semolina couscous, which we're probably more familiar with over here in Malaysia, these pearls cost almost five times more. But I couldn't resist.

(As an aside, anyone who knows a little bit about Malaysia's foreign policy will understand why anything with "Israeli" attached to it may not be publicised!)

I made a salad with the couscous. It contained chickpeas fried with chilli flakes, cubes of grilled eggplant, orange pepper/capsicum, cucumber, red chillies, and loads of fresh mint. The dressing was a vinaigrette of balsamic vinegar, honey and olive oil -- nothing fancy. I thought the grilled eggplant was a standout ingredient and there should be plenty of that as well as the mint, which, for me, is a must in every fresh salad.

I didn't use a recipe, but if you need one, here are some that I looked up: 

Israeli Couscous with Mixed Mushrooms by Ruth Reichl
Chicken and Israeli Couscous with Tomato and Lemon from The Bitten Word (taken from Martha Stewart Living)
Israeli Couscous with Caramelised Onion, Eggplant and Feta from Nibbledish